How Open Data Transforms Government

Open data, research by GovLab claims, is improving government around the world in four particular ways: improving government, tackling corruption, increasing transparency, and enhancing public services and resource allocation. According to Beth Simone Noveck, Professor of Engineering at NYU, Visiting Professor of Law at the Yale Law School and Director of The Governance Lab, open data is a “pragmatic tool to make government and companies more accountable at solving social problems and to help communities make better informed buying decisions.”

President Barack Obama, on his first day in office in 2009, signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. The memorandum declares that “Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset,” and called for executive departments and agencies to “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.” In 2011, seventy-five countries signed on to the Open Government Partnership Declaration, emulating the open data policy of the United States. The declaration calls for governments to commit to “pro-actively provide high-value information, including raw data, in a timely manner, in formats that the public can easily locate, understand and use, and in formats that facilitate reuse.”

Sixteen countries (and 28 states and cities) have also adopted the International Open Data Charter, which, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, “has the potential to accelerate progress by placing actionable data in the hands of the people.” The charter calls for government data to be made open in digital formats by default and for the creation of a culture of openness. Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) statement of purpose, which support “proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security,” has been signed by over 499 government and non-government related partners.

In the United States, at the federal level, open data facilitated the creation of USASpending.gov, a set of online tools for exploring the federal budget. At the local level, opening local government data about public works in Zanesville, Ohio revealed a fifty-year pattern of discriminatory water service provision. While access to clean water from the City of Zanesville water line spread throughout the rest of Muskingum County, residents of the predominantly African-American area of Zanesville, Ohio were only able to use contaminated rainwater or drive to the nearest water tower to truck water back to their homes. After years of legal battles, a map derived from data from the water company showing houses connected to the water line and data showing town demographics became one of the key pieces of evidence used during Kennedy v. the city of Zanesville case in 2008.

Open data can impact accountability in private organizations and institutions. For example, many states are moving to release data collected on doctors about their opioid pain medication prescribing patterns. Allowing doctors to compare their practices to those of other doctors has the potential of changing the behavior of less responsible prescribers. The Wall Street Journal reports that Arizona showed a 10 percent reduction in opiate prescriptions and a 4 percent reduction in overdose deaths in five counties that used open data in this fashion.

Open data success stories depend on the political will to be transparent and cooperative. Governments may frequently resort to “open-washing,” appearing to be open while keeping all important decisions and actions closed. The bipartisan interest in evidence-based approaches to governing should nevertheless fuel greater demand for access to administrative information of all kinds – including the data that agencies collect about companies, workplaces, the environment, and the world beyond government.

This is a review from How Open Data Can Revolutionize a Society in Crisis.

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